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Animals In Buddhism

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When my family first arrived in the dirty city of Bangkok, one of the first things my little sister asked me was “Why are there so many dogs everywhere?” Being the dog lover that she is, she was extremely disappointed to learn that these dogs were not only nobody’s pets, but that she also couldn’t pet them unless she wanted to get some weird fungus or sickness on the first couple days of her vacation. As I explained to them that the reason for all the dogs was because Thailand is mainly Buddhist and it is not in their fashion to kill these dogs, they still had a hard time accepting this fact seeing how miserable many of them look. I didn’t really feel like getting into the deeper reasons at the time mainly because they knew nothing about Buddhism and they had so many other questions about the wild city of Bangkok, so I just left the explanation at a “I know, it’s really sad.” What I didn’t further explain to them was that the main reasons for the allowance of these dogs was that it is against the first precept to harm them, as well as the basic idea of karma. Although Buddhism saves and protects many animals, it is also the reason millions of animals are suffering in Thailand as well as causing many ecological problems.

As one first starts learning about Buddhism, they will learn that the most fundamental guideline of living a meaningful life is to follow the 5 precepts. Fortunately you don’t have to go too deep into these precepts before you come across the first precept of ahimsa, which is the prohibition against the bringing of harm and/or death to any living being. This precept alone is pretty much the main reason that Buddhists tolerate and accept the overpopulation of dogs in urban cities of Thailand. It is taught that if one living being harms any other living being, whether human, animal, plant, or even mineral, that they will essentially pay for it in the end due to the concept of karma. Not only that, but according to the Buddha in the Angulimaliya Sutra, since all beings share the same "Dhatu" (spiritual Principle or Essence) and are intimately related to one another, killing and eating other sentient creatures is equivalent to a form of self-killing and cannibalism.

By reading some of the jatakas, we learn that in a few of Siddhartha Gautama’s previous lives, animals are frequently involved as either insignificant or main characters, and it is not uncommon for the Bodhisattva to appear as an animal as well. In one former life he was reborn as a Deer-king and offered to substitute his own life for that of a pregnant doe who was about to give birth. In another previous lifetime, the Buddha sacrificed his own human life to feed a starving tiger and her two cubs who happened to be trapped in snow. He reasoned that it would be better to save three lives than to merely preserve his own. Because of stories like this, it is said that an arahant would rather die than intentionally kill an insect.

This concept of protecting life has been the basis of many lessons/fables written by monks and teachers. One story that was translated and told by Dharmamitra spoke of a son that grew up in a family of butchers, and was thus expected to carry out the family trade. After refusing to slaughter an animal, his parents locked him in a room with a sheep and a knife, and told him that he would not be let out until he killed the sheep. Knowing that if he killed the sheep he would be forced into a lifetime of murder, he chose another route. When his parents returned, they saw that the sheep was still alive, but the son had turned the knife on himself. “At that time, when he killed himself, he was born in the heavens. If one is like this, then this amounts to not sparing [even one’s own] life in safeguarding [the integrity of] the pure precepts.” Stories such as this reflect the compassion and protection of animals in Thailand.

Although not all Buddhist countries are as compassionate and tolerant of booming animal populations such as dogs or monkeys in their cities (i.e. when there becomes a problem in Vietnam, they kill and eat the dogs), there are still many other ways in which these countries practice compassion towards animals. It would be thought that vegetarianism would be very prevalent in Buddhist culture, however that is not the case for most Buddhists, including monks. The eating of meat is not explicitly prohibited in the Sutras and Vinaya of the Pali Canon, which actually encourage monks to accept whatever food they are given, however they are forbidden from accepting animal flesh if they know, believe or suspect that the animal was killed especially for them. Although this practice isn’t popular among monks in Theravada or Tibetan Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and countries whose Buddhism originally came from China, such as Vietnam, Japan, and Korea, are more into vegetarianism (sounds retarded). The reason for this is that it is strictly forbidden in the Mahayana Lankavatara Sutra. Besides vegetarianism, there are also a few ceremonies and practices that many Buddhists are involved with to show their respect for nature.

The Rite of Liberating Living Beings “is a Buddhist practice of rescuing animals, birds, fish and so forth that are destined for slaughter or that are permanently caged. They are released to a new physical and spiritual life.” This is practiced on a daily basis, and can be seen near many ports or bridges near most rivers . The concept is you buy an eel, turtle, fish, etc., and you release it into the river and it is similar saving the life of another human being. Since Buddhism believes in reincarnation, and that we are all somehow related to one another, by saving a fish or a bird, it is similar to saving the life of one of our mothers in the past. This is another reason why monks and Buddhists treat all animals with respect and compassion.

Animal sanctuaries and hospitals are yet another form of making sure animals are being taken care of. Buddhists were in fact the first group to build hospitals for the care of sick and injured animals. In fact, the reason why there are so many animals living in and around temples and monasteries is because people often drop off their sick or unwanted pets there, because they know they will be taken care of. Tourists sometimes object to the presence of the animals, thinking they are unbecoming the spiritual surroundings, however the old priests welcome and enjoy the company of these little creatures who are drawn to these temples. There have been many animal sanctuaries created in Thailand, Nepal, China, and Japan run by Buddhist monks for the overabundance of these pets. I had the opportunity to visit one of these sanctuaries

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